The weather at the seventh annual Purple Hatter's Ball at the Spirit of Suwannee Music park in Live Oak, FL, was pretty much perfect for a festival. There was a nice mixture of cloudy and sunny during the day, and the nights were mostly cool. On Sunday afternoon, though, there were some heavy winds and rain, but even that upset ended up being refreshing.
The three-day fest is hosted in honor of the late Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, whose life was cut short at the age of 23 in an act of violence while working as an undercover informant to lessen the severity of non-violent criminal charges. The operation was poorly monitored by police and the worst case scenario took place. Rachel's parents, Margie Weiss and Irv Hoffman, were devastated. To prevent the same tragedy happening again, they contacted State Senator Mike Fasano, and, together, introduced Rachel's Law which ensures officers are educated on how to deal with undercover informants properly. They also took any money from settlements and started the Purple Hatter's Ball. Rachel was a fixture in the Florida festival scene, and it only seemed right that they hold one -- or seven now -- in her honor.
This year, there were four stages. In addition to Suwannee staples, the Amphitheater Stage and Uncle Charlie's Porch, there were also the Jacksonville and Gainesville stages. It was on those that you could watch the talent from those particular areas.
Representing the Jacksonville stage was Grandpa's Cough Medicine, Squeedlepuss, and Lucky Costello. Gainesville featured MNSRA, Hail Cassius Neptune Parker Robinson, Bells and Robes, and more. Also at 2 a.m., when the main stages were shut down for the night, the Jacksonville Stage became a Silent Disco where DJs and producers, including Sir Charles, Zak the Blak, Vlad the Inhaler, and Bit Deff, provided hypnotic electronic music to help keep the night going into the morning. Festival-goers are given headphones with the choice between two different acts to listen to, while the rest of the camp was able to get some much needed rest.
We arrived on Friday afternoon, in time to catch Grandpa's Cough Medicine after setting up at our campsite. The band got the weekend started off on the right foot with light, happy bluegrass and clever, whimsical lyrics. The music got these dancing feet 'a going and our anticipation rising.
Right afterward, Trial By Stone took the stage with its brand of unique reggae jams that really just set a mood. Singer-guitarist Buck Lemons has a unique voice for the music they perform. It works well and sets the group apart from other bands. Shortly after that, Florida favorites, the Heavy Pets took the amphitheater stage and completely tore it up. It's been nice to see this band grow over the years into the powerhouse it is today. The Heavy Pets go into tight, flowing jams that span genres and always bring you right back to where it started, propelling you to the next level. The love felt for this band from the audience was palpable, and that love was more than reciprocated.
Later on in the evening, the Emancipator Ensemble took the stage for one of the more unique performances of the festival. Emancipator (a.k.a. Douglas Appling) is an electronic musician who's made a name for himself by producing some of the most innovative, relaxing, down tempo electronic music around. He's played PHB before solo, but this year, he brought along a full band which in clouded live drums, a mandolin player and violinist. Their interpretation was nothing short of beautiful and exceeded our expectations. It went from lush soundscapes with hypnotic hip-hop sounding rhythms into dancey electronic jams that got everyone going completely nuts. The set closed with some Emancipator classics, including "Old Devil," leaving the crowd wanting more.
Luckily, Greenhouse Lounge was taking the other stage and offered a ton of energetic electronic fusion to get everyone going. It closed out with a rousing, remix of Trick Daddy's "Let's Go" that captivated the crowd. Folks from Catfish Alliances and Sexual Manatee hopped on stage to provide some backing vocals for the song.
The Nth Power started up on the Amphitheater Stage, getting as funky as it wanted. The whole band was extremely on point, and the three vocalists (Nikki Glaspie, Nigel Hall, and Nick Cassarino) showcased their unique voices that meshed unbelievably well, all the while playing their instruments with the skill of virtuosos.
Saturday started off as a relaxing day with South Florida locals Ketchy Shuby bringing their light-hearted vibe. Shortly after, Apple Butter Express presented fun, witty bluegrass/folk which featured snippets of samples, including the "Ain't Nobody got Time For Dat" lady.
On the same stage, Margie Weiss, Rachel's mother came on stage and spoke about the impact their initiatives have had, how successful the Rachel Morningstar Hoffman Foundation has been and to thank everyone for their support. She released 24 butterflies into the audience, 23 for how old Rachel was when she left us, and 1 for her spirit that still lives on.
After that, Dubconcious, which has played at the festival for all seven years, performed a set filled with conscious reggae. Next, Catfish Alliance kept the good times coming, and the talented Raising Appalachia churned out mesmerizing world music with very pertinent lyrics about the state of world affairs, touching on subjects such as the Occupy movement and food corporations.
Beats Antique took over the Ampitheater Stage with mind-blowing enthusiasm. Dancer Zoe Jakes was constantly changing costumes, adding an important visual element to the performance. At one point during the song "Carnival Theme," an audience member was chosen to participate in a mock game show on stage. She won, according to an ominous voice, eternal damnation. Out came an extremely large, inflatable monster that chased both Zoe and the participant around the stage. During the final song, a ton of girls rushed the stage in various animal masks ran completely wild. This whipped the entire crowd into a frenzy -- finishing off the final performance of the band's national tour.
Closing out Saturday night were seasoned English funk veterans the New Mastersounds which were all in rare form. There was humor and seriousness. Drummer Simon Allen told us about an accident that has left his brother paralyzed and in bad shape, and asked the audience to participate in an instagram video wishing him the best. It was a touching moment filled with love. The band played well into the night, at one point kind of pleading with management to let them have one more song. Sadly, all great things must come to an end.
Sunday was a more relaxed day. Most people had head home for Mother's Day. Only five bands played, but it just added to the sense of community and closeness that the whole weekend was about. Highlights included the Nth Power's second set which was more soulful and reflective than the first and Colorado's the Motet, which played an extra long time. Among all of their originals, they went into an impressive rendition of Prince's "Dance, Music, Sex, and Romance," and improvised very heavily, the way they normally do.
Between the nonstop music, art installations, sense of community, and the overall intention of this festival, it'd be hard not to feel satisfied with it. If Rachel's out there, she's likely pleased with her legacy which reminds us to be the best to each other during our short time on Earth.
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